Page last updated at 17:45 GMT, Monday, 11 January 2010

Who wins from China's export growth?

By Edwin Lane
BBC business reporter

Downtown Shanghai
China is targeting annual growth of 8%

China's quest to become the next global economic superpower has taken an important step forward.

According to its official news agency, China is now probably the world's biggest exporter, with its exports for last year totalling $1.2tn (£749bn).

That means it is set to beat Germany - the former top exporter - which publishes its figures next month, and is a stark reminder to China's competitors of its economic might.

China is predicted to overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy as early as this year, while annual growth rates of nearly 10% put it on course to eventually overtake the US as the world's economic superpower in a matter of years.

Sharing the benefits

The benefits for China are clear. In the short-term the money it makes from exports can be used to buy more raw materials, or to invest more heavily in Chinese business and infrastructure.

China's exports largely consist of low-value everyday goods... but that's a long way from where it wants to be
Dr Kerry Brown, Strategic China

It will also boost GDP, which is still recovering after falling to levels approaching 6% last year. That will help China hit its target of 8% growth this year.

But for the rest of the world, the impact will be mixed.

Foreign commodity producers should benefit. As well the rise in exports, China's imports were up 56% from a year earlier, with raw materials accounting for the bulk of the rise.

Imports of crude oil reached a monthly record, helping push the price of oil up to $83 a barrel on global markets.

Iron ore imports were also strong, reaching their second-highest level on record.

Some foreign manufacturers, too, are seeing an uptick in their exports to China.

The increasing wealth of many Chinese consumers means that the Chinese car market is now the biggest in the world - even for importers like German carmaker Volkswagen.

'Closed' market

But for foreign businesses, the growth of the Chinese consumer market does not automatically lead to a boost in demand.

"It's not the same as when the US economy does well," commented Linda Yeuh, a fellow in economics at Oxford University.

"It's potentially a very large market for the West, however China's quite a closed system."

Protectionist policies and the value of China's currency are recurring complaints from businesses and governments attempting to operate in the country.

Chinese yuan notes
China as been criticised for its currency policies

In particular, the Chinese government has artificially prevented the Chinese yuan from appreciating in value in recent years, making Chinese products cheaper on both the domestic Chinese markets and the world market.

"You've got to have a domestic market in China that foreign companies have access to and can compete in," explained Dr Kerry Brown, a director of Strategic China and an associate fellow at Chatham House.

"That's why the value of the currency is such a big issue."

Long-term plans

Exporting more may not be enough on its own, even for China's own long-term economic goals.

"China's exports largely consist of low-value everyday goods like cheap electrical appliances and textiles - but that's a long way from where it wants to be," added Dr Brown.

"China is aiming for a higher-value economy with higher-value exports.

"That's why the government is concentrating spending on things like research, development, innovation and education."

The Chinese economy, Dr Brown said, is still "immature, complex and transitional".

Its transition from economic miracle of the developing world to economic superpower still has some distance to go.

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